I’ve written before of my efforts to review how North Dakota TANF (welfare) recipients spend their benefits, and I’ve gotten a little bit of traction of late. I’ve been trying to get my hands on transaction data from the debit cards used by beneficiaries to spend their allotment of funds. After initially telling me that the transaction data isn’t kept, the Department of Human Services is now telling me the data is kept but is protected by federal privacy laws.
“Going into individual personal transactions of bank customers is against The Privacy Act,” Carol Cartledge, Director of Economic Assistance Policy Division for the ND DHS, told me in an email (note that I didn’t request information about beneficiaries but rather information about where beneficiaries spent their money).
This seems strange because we hear stories all the time about this transaction data being obtained by reporters in other states who find that significant amounts of welfare dollars are being spent in objectionable ways, such as in strip clubs or liquor stores. If federal law prohibits access to that data, how can reporters and researchers in other states get it? If the data is out-of-bounds, how are we enforcing the proper expenditure of these dollars here in North Dakota?
There aren’t a lot of answers coming from DHS, but I’m still working on it. In the mean time, they did provide me this category break down of TANF debit card EBT transactions, though they won’t provide me with the total dollar figure represented by these percentages or a per-category dollar break down. So, we can see that a little more than 4% of the dollars spent through EBT transactions were for movie rentals, but we have no idea how much that is in actual money, and DHS isn’t offering any answers:
Grocery Stores: 19.67%
Service Stations (inside): 19.27%
Fast Food Restaurants: 12.40%
Discount Stores: 6.50%
Service Stations (outside): 4.31%
DVD/Video Rentals: 4.02%
Drug Stores & Pharmacies: 2.08%
ATM/Cash withdrawals at the bank: 27.66%
Notice, also, that the biggest percentage here is cash withdrawals at ATM’s and banks. That might not be in and of itself objectionable, but where are these ATM’s? Are they at banks? Or in bars and liquor stores?
We don’t know, and again DHS isn’t giving up the information.
I’m not done digging, but so far it seems the oversight of welfare dollars in North Dakota is disturbingly lax.